Thursday, October 31, 2013

Helicopter Parenting: Individual and Institutional

Parenting (individually and institutionally) is hard, and it requires establishing guidelines and working from some kind of base paradigm. I see the helicopter version, fundamentally, as based upon a paradigm of fear -which, again, is not always a bad or inaccurate thing. It’s when any approach (helicoptering or hands-off) is taken to the extreme that the real issues arise. All other non-extreme approaches are combinations of the two opposite poles, and finding the non-extreme paradigm that works at the individual and organizational level is difficult, especially when members of the group don’t agree on what the proper balance is – and even more so when the group includes members who land everywhere on the spectrum from one extreme to the other.
I have a hard enough time figuring out a good balance for myself, much less for my children – and much, much less as the organizational numbers grow.

The LDS Church certainly has elements of helicoptering in it – and some of them are closer to the extreme than to the dead center. I would love to see those things moderated toward the center, but that reflects my paradigm and not necessarily those of other members. There are other areas where I love the freedom I have in the Church, even when those areas drive some members nuts who want more security and peace of mind.

As a good friend said once about charges of cult-like behavior, I try to recognize institutional examples of unhealthy helicoptering and ask:

“Lord, is it I?”

All too often, it is.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What Advice Would You Give a Stake President about How to Work with Those Who are in a Faith Crisis?

I was asked the question above recently, and the following was my response:
First, not all faith transitions are crises.  Many are nothing more than a maturation in individual perspective.  We are prone to classify different views as crises, and that tendency alone causes many problems.  (More on that later in this post.) 

My first piece of advice would be really simple:

Read Elder Wirthlin's April 2008 General Conference talk, "Concern for the One", and Pres. Uchtdorf's talk in the Saturday morning session of this past General Conference ("Come, Join with Us"). Study both of them carefully and prayerfully.  (I will address more directly some of PRes. Uchtdorf's points in a future post, but I want to dwell particularly in this post on what Elder Wirthlin taught.

Regarding Elder Wirthlin's address: 

1) Notice what he says about those who become "lost".

If a leader couldn't understand anything else, I hope he at least could understand that many of those who struggle do so because:

a) They are different;

b) They are weary;

c) They have strayed.

Notice, TWO of the three types he mentioned HAVE NOT strayed. That's SO critical to understand. They are "lost", but they haven't strayed. They just are different and/or weary. So, what can a leader do for them?

2) Recognize and acknowledge that their differences are OK - that being different does NOT mean straying. If nothing else can be accomplished, that one single thing, I believe, would save many people great and terrible heartache and suffering and would, in a very real way, "save" them.

3) Stop heaping burdens on people who are weary.

Allow a way to receive a timely and honorable "release" during weariness that does not include the implication that needing a break means someone is weak or has strayed. Show by action that Elder Packer was right when he said that the Church is meant to help the members - that the members aren't meant to staff the Church.

4) As for those who have strayed, find them - then truly get to know them - then love them no matter if they return immediately or ever. Love them for who they are, not as projects - or objects to reactivate.

5) Preach the Church as God's orchestra, as described in Elder Wirthlin's talk.

Nurture that analogy obsessively. Tell your members to celebrate diverse instrumentation in the Church. Preach Zion as such an orchestra - NOT as a bunch of piccolos playing the same, solitary melody.

6) Focus passionately on making each and every church meeting a spiritual, Christ-centered experience.

Differentiate between the purpose of Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society Meetings - and insist the Bishops focus on the different purposes, as well. Preach the development of Christlike attributes, the chief being charity. Preach service strictly for the sake of helping others - NOT for the sake of conversion. Partner with non-members and other organizations (including other churches) in this effort. Ask members to sacrifice to lift others - and almost nothing else. All the law and prophets hang on love, so teach and model love - by understanding and living Elder Wirthlin's message in "Concern for the One" and Pres. Uchtdorf's message in "Come, Join with Us".

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

My Biggest Problem with Homeschooling: Rhetoric

I’ve worked in education in one way or another almost my entire adult life, including years in “the trenches” trying to do something opportunity-changing in some of the deep trenches. I don’t mind homeschooling in principle, and I have no problem with the concept of people pulling their children out of public schools and teaching them on their own. I have friends who do that and are masterful at it. I also have friends who should be locked up for what they have done to their children in the name of protecting them from the world. I have observed that homeschooling runs the same gamut as public education when it comes to the quality of the education itself, so I can't criticize it at the personal, individual levelIt is a personal choice, and I am grateful for that opportunity in this country.
My biggest problem with homeschooling is the rhetoric I have heard and read. 

Too much of the homeschooling rhetoric writes off those who are in the public education system and casts the issue in adversarial and derisive tones. This is going to sound a little harsh, perhaps, but I have a hard time with someone who abandons someone else and then turns around and castigates those whom they abandon. Public school teachers and students alike lose MUCH when adults who care and children who care leave (especially when those people who leave are the very ones who could serve as examples and role models for those who have no choice but to stay), and they lose even more when those adults and children who leave turn around and criticize and condemn them verbally.  Much of the rhetoric I have heard and read over the years have been based in fear and criticism; too little has even attempted to reflect compassion and understanding, much less love.  

Again, I defend passionately the right to homeschool, but it’s easy to forget that the choice to do so is founded on a degree of luxury – of being “relatively rich” (meaning having something others don’t have, including simply opportunities and choices), and my heart hurts when those who can afford to homsechool (and I don’t mean that in strictly economic terms) criticize those who can’t and, in a very real way, dust their feet of the relatively poor in this regard.

No matter what decision one makes in this regard, I would prefer more compassion for the little ones who have no choice – and a little more ministry among them.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Avoiding Becoming Weary (or Burned Out) in the LDS Church

In his wonderful talk, "Concern for the One", Elder Wirthlin mentioned that some people stop coming to church and become "lost" because they are weary.  I was struck by that when he said it, and I have thought a lot about it since then - as anyone knows who has read this blog for some time, since I reference that talk quite often.

I want to share how I avoid becoming weary in the way that Elder Wirthlin describes, and I want to use my situation while living in Missouri specifically because it highlights how I easily could have become weary - or "burned out", as one friend described his experience to me years ago.

1) I keep from getting burned out by limiting what I do to what I can do without getting burned out. I know that sounds a bit silly and obvious (and very difficult for many, given the assumptions held my some members), but it works for me. It "helped" in Missouri that our finances and distance from the church created automatic barriers to doing too much, but I held to the principle even when we used to live 1.5 miles from the church and I made plenty of money. Bottom line: It's a hard-core commitment I've made - to do as much as I can but not get burned out by trying to do too much - to not try to do everything.

Some people don't like that I do that, and some people don't get it, but most people (the large majority) really do understand.

2) Having said that, I am MUCH more open to making an exception for unique service opportunities than for "regular, run-of-the-mill" stuff. I couldn't drive 40 minutes there and 40 minutes back - and pay for the gas to do so - just to be involved in an activity where there are plenty of other people there to handle it. Financially, I just couldn't. However, I could do that - occasionally - to help someone who needed my individual help. I could do that largely because I wasn't doing all the other stuff that would have sapped my time and money and energy - and that's really, really important to understand.

It's a balancing act, and it's MUCH harder in many ways than trying to do everything - but I believe it's important to be the one doing the acting and not just be acted upon.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Becoming Like Jesus: Lesson 1

The lessons this month are about "Becoming Like Christ".

We started our class by talking about effective ways to teach. They listed parables, example, object lessons, speaking at the level of the students and discussion. (Last week while I was gone, they talked about parables - using specific examples from the Gospels to show how Jesus taught.) I then told them those were important things and that learning how to teach more effectively using Jesus as an example is important, but I explained that we were going to focus on Jesus himself and becoming like him in a more literal sense.

I asked them how we can learn about someone. After some discussion, we narrowed it down to three things: what is written or said about the person (a description of some sort by others), characteristics or attributes they model and/or teach, and what they do (their actions). I told them we would focus on learning how to become like Jesus by focusing on each of those "study methods", in that order.

I asked them what we know about Jesus, in broad terms - like a timeline:

He was born in Bethlehem. Probably around the age of 12-24 months, his family fled Bethlehem and moved to Egypt. A few years later, after Herod's death, they moved to Nazareth. At the age of 12, his family traveled to Jerusalem, where he surprised educated people at the temple. (Note: There is no indication that Jesus was "teaching" anyone, as is commonly believed. The verses say he was "hearing them and asking them questions" and that they were "astonished at his understanding and answers".) The next 18 years are summed up in Luke 2:51, which says:

Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

We broke that verse down word-by-word, since I believe it is one of the least understood Biblical verses in all of Christianity.

"Increased" means he "gained or acquired more", and what he gained or acquired was "wisdom" (learning, understanding, ability to apply) and "stature" (size). Thus, Jesus learned things (just like we all learn things) and grew up. He also increased in "favor" (standing, rank, acceptance - especially compared to others) - and that increase was with both God and other people. We talked about what it means to be a "favorite" and how "favor" in this usage implies comparison to others. We then talked about how Jesus could increase in favor with God, especially if he was God's only begotten son AND if he was the God of the Old Testament before he was born.

We talked about the common misunderstanding of what it means to be "sinless" - and I mentioned again my dislike of the following song lines:

"The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord, Jesus, no crying he makes."

"He never got vexed when the game went wrong, and he always told the truth."

In the Primary Sacrament Meeting program, one of the children gave a short talk in which he said that Jesus never made any mistakes. I told the students that I understand the need to teach very young children in simplistic terms, but that being sinless does NOT mean never making mistakes. We talked about transgressions being mistakes made in ignorance - things we do that are wrong but not against our understanding or conscience, then we talked about sins being things we do in opposition to our own consciences. Thus, a sin for one person isn't necessarily a sin for someone else. One person's sin often is another person's transgression. If, therefore, Jesus increased in wisdom AND in favor with God and man, he could have made mistakes and "transgressed" some element of eternal law (like lying as a young child) without "sinning" (violating his conscience and understanding).

With this as the baseline, becoming like Jesus does NOT mean never making mistakes (even transgressions) but rather trying not to act in opposition to one's conscience - which, instructively, we call "the light of Christ".

We then moved to what he is said to have taught - focusing on the Gospels (since they are all we have of his purported words during mortality) and, particularly, the Sermon on the Mount - in order to see what he identified as the characteristics and attributes of godliness (or "blessedness", to use the exact word). I told them again about my three-year focus on understanding and living better the characteristics and attributes listed in the Sermon on the Mount and how badly I wished I had started that focus when I was their age rather than when I was in my 40's.

We talked about being "poor in spirit" - and we focused on the need to "value" each person as an equal spirit child of God. Being "rich in spirit" is a negative in that context, so it can't mean "spiritual" in the sense we normally apply. Being poor in spirit has to mean not valuing one's self above others, at the most fundamental spiritual level. I pointed out that one of the students is more valuable as a singer and actor than many others at their school, while another student is more valuable as a mathematician, and another one is more valuable as an athlete. There is something about each of the students that makes them more valuable than others in some "natural" way. However, there also are others who are more valuable in those ways than each of them. The tendency is to see differing value in objective ways and miss the equal value of each spirit child in God's eyes.

We talked about being able to mourn - and I asked them how mourning could be a condition of blessedness. That stumped them at first, but we had a good conversation about how we mourn only for the loss of that which we value highly and those we truly love. People who mourn are blessed for two reasons: they have something / someone in their lives of great value, and they have hearts that can feel deep love. Conversely, the inability to mourn is a sign of lack of value in one's life and an inability to love. We also talked about how much we can gain and give in the process of mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who stand in need of comfort.

We talked about meekness as a blessing. I asked them what they envision when they think of someone who is meek. It was interesting that their immediate pictures were of someone cowering in timidity and fear - or someone who was extremely submissive and weak. I asked them if that picture fit their understanding of Jesus, and they immediately realized it didn't. I said something like, "Dude was a carpenter, and he chased people out of the temple grounds with a whip!" We then talked about meek meaning "gentle, forgiving, benevolent" - which are VERY different attributes than weakness, timidity and fearfulness. We finished by talking about what that means in practical terms in their lives - how they can be more meek in the reality of their own situations without being weak, timid or fearful.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Teaching Children: Why Did Jesus Have to Atone and Suffer?

If I was teaching children about the Atonement and one of them asked the question above, the simplest answer I would give is that humans need symbolism in their lives that are powerful and compelling.

I then would explain the symbolism of the scapegoat and talk about how powerful it is for a God to be the Great Scapegoat - especially in a culture at that time that used the scapegoat in its actual ceremonies. I would read the passages in Isaiah that deal most directly with his suffering.  I would say that I have no clue whatsoever about the mechanics of the Garden of Gethsemane (exactly how Jesus actually suffered for our sins and weaknesses and mistakes and pain and every other bad thing we experience) - but I really love the idea and symbol of a Great, Loving, Suffering-Along-With-Us-to-Truly-Understand-Us God.

If I was talking with an older child who could understand deeper things, I would go into more detail about my own view of the symbolic vs. the literal, but for a younger child, I would keep it to the simpler outline above. If explained using age-appropriate vocabulary and visual images of a scapegoat, I believe most children who are out of the nursery could understand - at least to some degree.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sacrament Meeting Can Be a Revelatory Worship Service - or Just Another Meeting

NOTE: A friend of mine who was preparing to serve a mission wrote the following to me some time ago.  I honestly had not considered Sacrament Meeting in quite the way she explained, and I was moved by it.  I am publishing it here, with her permission, in order to emphasize the need to focus on the unique purposes of our varying Sunday meetings - to treat Sacrament Meeting as a WORSHIP service centered on Jesus Christ and not dilute the nature of worship by assigning and giving talks that would be best suited for Sunday School or the Relief Society / Priesthood meeting.  Our Sacrament Meetings, especially, should be what Elder Bednar called "revelatory experiences" - not "just" time to talk about things that could be discussed in detail elsewhere.
After attending church today, I feel the need to vent a little to someone who will actually listen to what I have to say.

Here's what it all boils down to: for the past few months of attending sacrament meeting, I am simply appalled with the general Mormon attitude towards Sacrament meeting I have seen. It frustrates me, and makes it difficult for me to have the motivation to go.

A few months ago while attending an Institute class that was specifically structured to discuss the Atonement, we had a lesson on the symbolism and sacred nature of the Sacrament and sacrament meeting. I know that you are aware of the symbolism, but allow me to quickly paraphrase what I learned. My teacher spoke about how the entire meeting should be focused on the Atonement of the Savior. He pointed out how the ideal meeting should be much like a funeral for a loved one. We come dressed in our best clothing (typically conservative and simple) and should reverently enter the chapel. The chapel itself is to represent the sacred tomb where our Savior was laid to rest after his sacrifice for us. In a very real sense, we are entering his tomb, where his body symbolically lays covered in white at the sacrament table. Ideally our thoughts and hearts should be turned to Him the moment we enter the room.

After entering, we then begin the meeting with prayer and song. An important purpose of these two things is to unite all in attendance to the same special spirit. The reason why we all come dressed similarly, and bow our heads and fold our arms in a uniform way, is to help us become united. The very essence of the English word Atonement is "at one ment", meaning together, united, connected, etc. That is the purpose of the Atonement-- to help us become one with God. Christ is the perfect example because he is literally the perfect union of man and God. This is the same reason why we are encouraged to sing together. All of these processes are intended to help us to unify our hearts together and become one with each other and God through the Spirit.

Another interesting thing my teacher taught my class is that as the priest kneels down and bows his head, he is acting at a proxy for Jesus Christ. It is as though Christ is blessing the sacrament for each of us, as he did for his apostles at the Last Supper.

The last piece of Sacrament meeting that I'd like to touch on is the talks given from the pulpit. As the sacrament is, in effect a funeral service, these talks should be on the person the funeral is for... Jesus Christ. This is where sacrament has really been getting to me lately. I come to hear others reflect on the Savior, and instead I get trip logs about girls camp and high adventures. Day one we did this... day two we did this... day three... and on and on. This just doesn't sit well with me! There's a time and place for everything, but reporting about your trip during sacrament is not the right place! Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if the speakers synthesized their experience and turned it into a lesson of spiritual thought, but this usually is not the case. There are times when Christ isn't even mentioned at all in the talks! Now I'm not saying that all the talks have to be on the same thing, but they should all tie back to Christ and His Atonement.

At a real funeral, these talks would come before the body is removed, and my teacher pointed out occasions where he had attended meetings that did just that. It would be interesting to attend such a meeting where the Sacrament ordinance was the focal point of the entire meeting (the climax if you will). I feel like placing the sacrament at the end like this would greatly change the flow of the meeting.

Pondering the deeper meaning of these things really can change your whole perspective of the Sacrament. I feel guilty throwing stones at others when I know I too am imperfect. We are all in this together and I realize that. I just feel strongly that Sacrament service today hardly accomplishes what it was designed to do. I hope what I'm saying makes sense and I apologize for jumping around a bit. Perhaps I am wrong in my argument, and if I am please let me know. These are just me feelings, and I hope that since you are in position of leadership that perhaps you could consider ways that you could help Sacrament be a little more sacred. Even those like me who are not in leadership can do our part.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Transgression and Sin Are Very Different Things - and Victims Commit Neither

"transgress" -- "err, trespass, contravene, disobey."

We use the word too much in the Church to mean "disobey" as an active verb, but there are plenty of cases where there is no disobedience involved - and changing the definition choice to "contravene" and the verb from active to passive changes the meaning dramatically for victims.

"be transgressed" -- "put into error; contravened; not be obeyed"

This usage focuses solely on the law itself and says nothing more than that a standard has not been followed.

"transgression" -- a breach of a law, etc; sin or crime

We use the word too often to mean "sin" or "crime", but the way we use both "sin" and "transgression" in the 2nd Article of Faith doesn't allow them to be conflated. Thus, the only workable meaning for "transgression" left is "a breach of law" - which, in legal terms, doesn't equal "a crime" in many situations.

When I talk about transgression and transgress, I am talking about instances where a law has been breached but no crime (or sin) has been committed by the victim. There is a perpetrator of a crime (a sinner), and there is the person upon whom the crime or sin is committed.  In such a case, it is impossible for the person who is present but not the perpetrator of the breach (particularly the victim) to "commit a transgression". The only people who can commit transgressions are those who are the primary perpetrators of the breach but also are not capable of understanding that their actions are illegal / immoral.

For example, in the case of rape, that would be someone who is mentally disabled following the directions of someone else or following nothing more than biological urges. They would be "transgressors", but their victims still would not be.

I use rape to explain this principle, because rape might be the best example of how we too often misunderstand this principle.  Rape victims have not sinned, nor have they been transgressors.  Others have sinned or transgressed.  The victims remain clean and pure (unspotted and unstained) - and that is crucial to emphasize.

Monday, October 21, 2013

We Can and Need to Do a MUCH Better Job in Temple Prep Classes

I think we do a grave disservice to members by our refusal to talk about the temple much more openly.

Seriously, just about everything is available to the public now - and most of it has been explained in "faithful" writings.  On top of that, there really isn't very much that is forbidden to be discussed in the actual temple wording. When you listen really carefully and don't credit all the things that individual members say, the only things that are forbidden specifically deal with one very narrow aspect - and I understand not talking about that aspect.

There is NOTHING that forbids me from explaining the entire endowment to my children - or anyone else - in great detail, as long as I am careful not to cross the line I mentioned above. I can explain that it is a play or movie, depending on the location - a presentation of the creation of the universe - of the creation of humans (figuratively) - of the conflict between following God or Lucifer - of the introduction of religion and the need to search for people who speak for Heavenly Father - of the things we need to accept and try to do in order to become like God - of our admission into the presence of God. I can explain that I view it almost all as symbolic - and why. I can talk about the covenants and how I interpret them. etc., etc., etc.

I can go into lots of detail - and I believe strongly that our Temple Prep classes should do so. There is NO solid reason that anyone should go to the temple for the first time and be surprised in any way - and I believe that deeply and passionately. It is one of our greatest failures in the Church, in my opinion - and it is completely unnecessary, given what actually is said in the temple itself.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

We Can't Judge People Who Leave the LDS Church, Even if We Think We Understand Them

I know quite a few people who have had some intense struggles, of various kinds and to varying degrees. I know quite a few who once were active in the LDS Church who no longer are, due to those struggles.  I appreciated, deeply, Pres. Uchtdorf's talk in the Saturday morning session of General Conference this month, in which he said the reasons people become inactive or even leave the Church are more complicated than we often realize and that we need to respect and not judge them.  I only add that this is true if we don't understand but also, especially, if we assume we do.  
The following is one example.  I share it only to illustrate the point I want to make at the end of this post:

I know someone who was unable to live at home for a while during his teenage years.  He lived with friends for a while after he could no longer live at home, and, during that time, he had a couple of incredibly strong spiritual experiences - after first deciding to listen to the missionaries because both sister missionaries were "absolute babes".  (What can I say; he was 18.)        He is highly intelligent, and he "got it" very quickly.  He and I had some long talks, and he really did have some awesome experiences and insights.    He was baptized while living with his friends, then left for college a few months later.

When he first started college, he often walked miles to get to church on Sunday.  However, he had some negative experiences in his new ward that don't need to be detailed here; suffice it to say that they were real and strong and incredibly disappointing to me.   As a result of those experiences and the subsequent lack of the type of support system he had when he joined the Church, he began to return to the life he had lived prior to his baptism.  His dysfunctional adolescence had caused some very serious issues, and, left on his own (even by his new ward), they resurfaced.   I have prayed for him and hoped for him (and still do), but I have seen his actions take him away from activity in the Church. That has not diminished my love for him in the slightest.  

He returned home once for the summer, and his father mocked his inactivity by saying something like, "I guess that Mormon thing isn't working out for you."   His response gave me hope in the midst of my concern. He said to his father, "I'm not living the way I should be living, but the Mormon Church is still the truest thing I've ever heard.  I just have to get myself together before I can live it."  

I hang onto faith that "when he is old, he will not depart from it".  I KNOW his experiences and insights were real; he knows they were real.  I have to trust that God's grace and mercy truly will save him from the results of Adam's transgression in his life - and I see the issues that are keeping him from full activity directly as a result of what he inherited and what he had to "become" to cope - and the experiences he had in a non-supportive environment when he first was on his own.

I believe the Atonement is MUCH more powerful than we often realize. Surely, God understands those whose struggles overwhelm them, in whatever way and for whatever reason, and we someday will "stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers (them); confused at the grace that so fully he proffers (them)." In the meantime, as I said at the beginning of this post, we must love and respect and support and comfort them, if we don't understand and even if we think we do. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

"May God in his mercy bless and preserve us."

The following is a summary of some of the events that led up to the deaths that occurred among the Martin and Willie handcart companies - with a focus on an amazing statement by one of its members.  It was written by a friend who shared it with me.

There are many ways to react to this quote, but I am choosing to emphasize the loyalty, love and compassion of a man who knew he might die as a result of his choice in Omaha, Nebraska - but who decided to take that chance in order to try to save others, if possible. 
James Willie was the leader of the group. Levi Savage was a sub-captain. Having served previously in the Mormon Battalion, Savage was a valuable resource for the journey because of his knowledge of the trail. It was getting late in the year, and everyone knew they needed to head west. There was trouble obtaining wood for the handcarts, and they weren’t sturdy. Willie led a campfire meeting to discuss the departure and promised that God would be with them. He asked Levi Savage to give a few words. Savage expressed concern to the group that they were leaving too late in the year, and stating that he felt many would die along the way if they left. He encouraged everyone to stay put in Omaha.

Willie scolded Savage for a lack of faith and asked for a vote on whether the group wanted to head west. Most of the group responded that they wanted to go; approximately 100 people stayed in Omaha. Savage responded with a passionate speech. In a journal, James Chislett records that Savage said,

“What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and, if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.”

There's a complexity in this quote that is powerful and really resonates with me.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Denying the Faith, in Practical Terms

I believe the core component of faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, is holding onto the belief that all people are redeemable - and, even more importantly, that all are worthy of redemption and that each needs it just as badly as any other. Some examples of people who appear to be irredeemable might be more obvious than others, but they are exactly the same in the end - since "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God".

Again, to me, that is the heart of faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ - faith in what we believe he did and/or symbolized through his life and death. Any time we write off someone as irredeemable, we write off the atonement in a very real way and "deny the faith" in practical terms.

We, of all people, ought not condemn or give up on others - given how badly we want God not to condemn or give up on us.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Evidence that the Book of Mormon Isn't Incorrect in the Way that Many Critics Have Said for Years

I came across the following story a couple of years ago, randomly, and I saved the link just in case I wanted to write something about it at some point. I decided to do so for today - and to keep it focused strictly on this issue, since expanding the issues would have necessitated a much longer post than what I feel like writing right now.  (*grin*)  The story was in multiple publications, so I saved the url for the one that was the most extensive.

"Wooly mammoth may have interbred with elephants"

There's nothing in the article that absolutely proves the use of "elephants" in the Book of Mormon is accurate (that the Book of Mormon is, in fact, a historical narrative), but it certainly places "elephants" throughout the Americas in a time frame that would fit the actual wording in the Book of Mormon. The only reference in the Book of Mormon comes from Ether, so it might have been as early as 5,000-6,000BC (assuming accurate Biblical chronology, which is suspect to begin with) - and the remains that were found date to about 11,000BC. Given all the variables, that's close enough to be a reasonable fit. Also, the reference to "cureloms and cumoms" in Ether might fit this article as various types of mammoths and inter-bred animals.

Again, not definitive proof by any stretch, but it points to how some arguments that have been considered undeniable proof of fiction (and obvious anachronisms) and assumed by all critics for a long time can be incorrect as we learn more and more.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

It Can Be Difficult to Accept the Plan of Salvation in All It's Messiness

In Mormon theology, there were two plans: one that dictated beliefs and actions (and, as a result, allowed no growth) and one that left it up to each individual to decide what to believe and do (and, as a result, allowed both greatness and depravity - and everything between those extremes). The good news is that this theology also posits an intervention (through a Savior and Redeemer) by which sincere efforts to believe and do good things are rewarded, no matter how they align with objective, absolute truth. Not everyone in the Church understands how "liberal" that theology is, but it's there in spades.

I know how hard it is to deal with the ambiguity and relativity on which such a theology rests, as evidenced by how many members (including leaders) can't accept it fully (since it can be incredibly messy and painful), but, personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. I don't want others to be able to force me to act against the dictates of my own conscience, so I have to be willing to accept that I and mine can't do the same to them. That is true no matter how strongly I feel about the difference. 

The type of truth that I believe all should accept and follow is wrapped up in principles and characteristics and focus, not detail. I don't really care how someone describes charity, faith, hope, compassion, love, forgiveness, etc., as long as they are describing and trying to live them. I don't care if I see lots of the details differently, as long as I am working with others according to those characteristics. I really do believe that the "Gospel" is incredibly simple and "universal truth"; I just don't put much else that I can understand in that category. Pretty much everything else is more blurry or dark to me, so I don't get hung up on it when someone else sees through the mists differently than I do - or when those differing views add complexity, messiness and even pain to my life.

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Experience Giving Blessings

I have given literally hundreds of Priesthood blessings in my life, and I have come to accept that I only can say what comes into my mind and hope it is inspired and helpful in some way.

I always go into a blessing hoping and praying to be a conduit for God's voice, since I have had a few such experiences that were undeniable, but that is out of literally hundreds of blessings I've given in my life. It probably works out to about 1%-2% as undeniable voice of God experiences, 1%-5% as probably my own best but perhaps mistaken thoughts and 90%-95% as not sure if they were God's will but good words of comfort that helped in some way.

I'm ok with that, since I believe God doesn't micro-manage our lives every time we want or need a blessing - and I'm willing to muddle through hundreds of comforting encouragements to experience the unmistakable revelatory experiences that I have experienced as a result of being willing to put myself in the position to experience them.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Accepting My Own Differences in Cases Where I am Different than Other Mormons

A good friend asked me recently how I embrace the LDS Church as being "my church" in a way that is fulfilling - that helps me feel a sense of personal "ownership" without any angst when I see some things differently than others.  I told him I would think about it and respond once I had the time to contemplate his question and give it the thought it deserves.

The following is my response to him: 

I think, for me, it boils down to the fact that I have been the odd duck all my life. I had to be OK with being different and seeing things differently than everyone else from the time I was . . . probably consciously . . . about seven years old, when I read the Book of Mormon on my own for the first time and realized I was getting different historical conclusions from it than I was hearing in Primary and Sacrament Meeting. If I couldn't be comfortable being different and not caring if others agreed with me or not, I would have been a basket-case at an early age.

In other words, I've been heterodox in some ways and had to "own" my different perspectives and my place in "my church" for as long as I can remember. I was where you are now as an adult before I was baptized at age eight. I'm not saying it was easy, and I'm not making any statement other than it's just a matter of accepting yourself for who you are when it comes to these things and learning to be fine with your best effort. That attitude helps because it eliminates the angst by focusing, ironically, on what I would call "pure faith and hope". I'm really weird in some ways, even within a peculiar people, so the only way I can be at peace within that peculiarity is to realize that all I can control (and even that not fully) is myself and living according to the dictates of my own (moral and intellectual) conscience.

Nobody else can make be happy, if I am not happy within myself. Once I am happy within myself, nobody else can make me unhappy. They can frustrate me, but even that is fleeting - when I can turn around and grant them the same privilege I have granted myself.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What if My Spiritual Experiences are All in My Head?

Near the end of the final Harry Potter book, Harry asks Dumbledore if what they are experiencing is real or if it's all in his head. Dumbledore responds by saying:

Of course, it's all in your head - but that doesn't make it any less real.

There is a really powerful principle in that quote, relative to a lot of things we discuss here, at other sites online and even at church. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Command to Mourn with and Comfort Others Has No Disclaimers or Limitations

I watched General Conference this past weekend and was uplifted and edified by many of the talks I heard.  Pres. Uchtdorf's message of understanding and love Saturday morning and Elder Holland's treatment of depression Saturday afternoon were especially powerful for me.  However, I also have friends I love and respect who were hurt, in real and deep ways, by some of the other things that were said last weekend. 

In the aftermath of those statements, I witnessed faithful members with differing perspectives arguing with each other and, in some cases, even ridiculing each other - specifically because they disagreed about the statements being discussed. 

This post intentionally does NOT take any position with regard to any statement or talk during General Conference last weekend.  Rather, it is nothing more than a re-post of something I wrote at a couple of locations as I was observing the bickering and, in two cases, attacking statements - by members on both sides of the discussion.  What I want to share is short, but I believe it is a core element of charity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ - and I also believe it is one of the hardest aspects of divinity we are asked to internalize.  If we could master only this principle, I believe we would draw nearer to the creation of Zion than nearly all other principles - since I see it as fundamental to true charity, the pure love of Christ. 

I am going to set it off in quotes, just to highlight it apart from this introduction:

Mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who stand in need of comfort have no disclaimers or limitations. They are important even when the cause of the mourning and need of comfort aren’t understood or shared. In fact, I believe one of the truest measures of charity is how we act toward those who mourn and need comfort for reasons that we don’t understand or share.

For everyone who listened to and loved Pres. Uchtdorf's message, please:

Stop the arguing and bickering with each other and strive to incorporate what he preached, no matter how much you disagree with each other.   Mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort - even if you don't share their sorrow, and even if you think that sorrow is misplaced.  Ultimately, the most important thing is not your view; the most important thing is that someone else needs to mourn and be comforted.  So, mourn with them and comfort them, despite your differences. 

It is what He asks of those who desire to follow Him, as difficult as it is initially. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Over-Valuing Knowledge at the Expense of Faith

I want to know as much as I can, but I think in our current Mormon culture we over-value knowing and under-value believing and having faith.

I believe in absolute truth, but I don't believe we have the ability to understand it very well. In other words, I believe we see through a glass, darkly - and all that is required of us is to live according to whatever we are able to see, regardless of how accurate it is in comparison to absolute truth.

Accepting that simple belief has set me free in a very real way - to open my mind to the possibility of finding truth in everything around me, including faith traditions I can't accept fully. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

I Would Love Vicarious Temple Ordinances Even if They Had No Literal Impact on the Dead

I believe there is a marvelous, wonderful, awe-inspiring power inherent in the idea of working as a savior on Mount Zion - of turning our hearts to our ancestors in a manifestation of love and humility - that I haven't found in any other construct outside of vicarious temple ordinances.  In that regard, I believe we perform vicarious temple ordinances for the symbolism as it relates to us - and for what it does for us in a very important way - every bit as much as for the literal effect it might have on the dead. Vicarious ordinances really are an important part of the living Gospel for me, but that's mostly because I accept the symbolism as extremely powerful and paradigm-altering. I would love it for that reason alone, even if I didn't believe it had any literal impact on those for whom the ordinances are preformed.

Having said that, I believe if we miss the symbolism and what it can do for us by limiting it solely to its impact on the dead, it's just another dead work. (pun not intended when I typed those words, but . . .)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

General Conference Expectations: A Short Thought

As General Conference starts today, I want to reprise something I wrote a while ago about leadership in general.  I think it applies to General Conference, as well - and I think not understanding it and having unrealistic expectations contributes greatly toward some people's disappointment in what they hear at General Conference.

What do I expect from the speakers at General Conference?  

That they try their best to deliver messages that will enlighten, uplift, help or touch as many people as possible - or a particular portion of those who listen and/or watch. Period.  End of answer.  

I believe that, generally, those who are called as leaders are inspired more often than not, but I believe that's because they are sincere and try to seek inspiration. At the root, however, all I expect is their best effort - since that's all I can promise when I'm on the receiving end of the expectations.

After all, in the LDS Church, our leaders are us.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Why Is Individuality Respected in Some Wards and Branches and Not in Others?

I've been in wards where individuality wasn't appreciated much, and I've been in wards where individuality was appreciated greatly. What tended to be the difference?

Room for individuality depends almost entirely on the local leadership in the units, but the biggest factor that affects local leadership tends to be the diversity of the membership. A more diverse membership tends to necessitate more tolerance of individuality. Nobody has to be confrontational in any way, but hearing different voices and perspectives makes a difference - to widely varying degrees. On the other hand, it can be vary hard to appreciate diversity in thought and perspective in a ward or branch where nobody ever expresses a differing opinion, much less where everybody sees everything essentially the same way. 

That, perhaps, is the worst result of those who are different leaving the Church or becoming inactive. It solidifies the "norm" and lessens the likelihood that individuality will be appreciated and encouraged - that everyone will learn from hearing multiple views. I'm not "blaming" people for leaving if they feel different (and I LOVE Elder Wirthlin's point in "Concern for the One" that it is the membership's responsibility to act in a way that encourages those who are different, those who are tired and those who have strayed to return), but I am saying that leaving only exacerbates the problem about which those who leave complain.

Intolerant people who prompt people to leave contribute to our inability to build Zion, but so do those who leave. I know for a fact that my own insistence on staying actively involved has been a blessing to others who might have left or faded away into inactivity without my voice, and I am glad I stayed for that reason even if there had been no other benefits for me. There have been such benefits - great and glorious benefits, but, still, that would have been enough.

I'm not saying I have been responsible for the fact that my last two wards, especially, have been and are wonderful wards - but I am saying I have been and am a PART of the reason. I speak up and contribute in a unique way, and that helps others feel comfortable doing so, as well - especially those who see things similarly, but even those who don't. I talk openly about the need to value diversity, and the diverse appreciate that and respond. I am seen as totally faithful and not a threat or a challenge in any way (since I am faithful and am not a threat), so "The Church" where I live is not seen the same way it is seen in some other units.

Again, I'm not alone in that, but I AM a part of it. Granted, I don't face this to the degree that some others do in their units (where the majority of members don't want to hear differing views, for example), but I have been in situations where I appeared to be the only voice saying what I was saying - only to have someone come up to me afterward and thank me for saying it.

I believe that is worth considering - truly contemplating and internalizing.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Being My Own Unique Self by Conforming to Communal Norms

Romans 14:13-21 says:

13 Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.
14 I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
15 But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
16 Let not then your good be evil spoken of:
17 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
18 For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men.
19 Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
20 For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offense.
21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.

Applying this to myself in my own time and life, I am Mormon - and I agree completely with the apostle, Paul, that the each single detail of the Word of Wisdom isn't all that important to me, in and of itself. It's not central to the Gospel. However, it is central to the identity of LDS members and is very important to them. Thus, I am fine with the ideal being "adapted" to the "weakest of the weak" and not partaking personally of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, etc. Partaking simply isn't important enough to me to offend others and harm my relationship with them; worded conversely, my relationship with them is FAR more important than eating and drinking whatever I would if I lived as a hermit. I won't put food and drink above relationships, and there is no relationship benefit in my own life that will be better if I reject the Word of Wisdom - while there are lots of relationships in my own life that will be worse if I do that.

For me, it's that simple. Love beats physical pleasure and the need to make my own rules about such trivial things that have no bearing on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Relative to this post, that means, at the most practical level, I am willing to "be myself" by conforming to this particular social marker - and I recognize the counter-intuitive nature of that statement. In this case, I express my agency by choosing to conform - and it's incredibly important to me, for myself, to make that gesture in support of others.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Difficulty of Understanding History: Honest People Can Be Wrong

When it comes to history, we can be really certain about some things - especially when there is agreement in accounts written by people with different motives and perspectives, and even more so when contemporaries agree even though they are on opposite sides of the issue. Historical "occurrences" (what happened) are easier to analyze objectively (as difficult as even that is in some cases), but motivations and reasons for those occurrences are much harder to pin down with certainty in many cases

That's true even with first-hand explanations.  Eye-witness accounts are surprisingly shaky in many cases, as lawyers and police officers can attest.  people aren't honest in some cases and, even when they are honest, they aren't always accurate.  That last point is easy to forget:

Honest people can be wrong, especially if they write about something long after the fact - like much of our ancient scriptural records, for example (including the Book of Mormon) - or if their perspective colors their understanding.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I Don't Care about Plainer Translations of Scripture

I believe scriptures tell us how people from the past viewed God and his relationship to them - and not much else that truly is objective, when it gets right down to it. It's really important to know how others view(ed) God, but it doesn't say much about how WE view God and his relationship to US. Absolutely, scriptures can and should influence us, but I believe in an evolutionary model of understanding that includes religious understanding - that "further light and knowledge" and "ongoing revelation" are FAR superior to past pronouncements of scripture, with the exception of the words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. I think that is axiomatic to Mormonism - that even now there still are "many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God" that are yet to be revealed.

Thus, while I value scriptures highly (from all faith traditions), I don't really care much about spending time trying to translate them more plainly - since, in the end, I believe those translations reveal much, much more about our own worldview than they do about the worldview and intent of the original authors (whoever they actually were) and abridgers (whoever they actually were).